ED2015 Interviews ED2015 Spoken Word ED2015 Theatre ED2015 Week2 Edition

Ben Norris: Talking love, loss and motorways

By | Published on Sunday 16 August 2015

Ben Norris

In his “one-man show about love, loss and motorways” – ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Family’ – writer and performer Ben Norris recounts the story of the time he took off on a hitch-hiking tour of all the places his emotionally distant father had lived – most of them just off the M1 – in an attempt to understand him better.
The resulting show wowed our reviewer, who noted that “Norris is a tremendous performer, demonstrating his skill at slam poetry through subtle rhythm and dexterous wordplay. He does this without ever breaking the intimate rapport he forges with his audience through friendly and sincere interaction”. With a concept this interesting, and a review that good, we had to track down Ben to find out more.

CC: Tell us about the concept behind the show. Why did you decide to go on this adventure?
BN: The show, and the hitchhike itself, were born of the same impulse: to get to know my dad and to explore the relationship a lot of men have with their fathers. For the vast majority of my adult life my dad has been fairly emotionally unavailable, consistently a man of few words, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart or his past. I wanted to explore that past, in the hope that it would bring us closer in the present.

CC: Did you immediately know where you had to visit on this journey, or did you have to do some research? How much of it was planned at the outset?
BN: All of my major stops were planned at the start of the journey – so, all the places he had lived, plus any other places of significance to his life – and one meeting was planned too, with his best friend Marcus. But other than that, everything was left open to chance; the people I met and the conversations I had, with both strangers and other family members and friends, were all impromptu. I had some addresses and phone numbers at the outset, but that was about it. Half of these I’d secretly gleaned from the address book in my family home, many more I’d got from my nan. Very few addresses or info came from dad himself, because at that time I was too trepidatious to breech the topic of the show with him in full.

CC: Did you explain to the people who gave you lifts what you were doing? What did they make of it?
BN: I did, and most of them were really into it; both the idea of hitchhiking in general, given how rare it is these days, and also my quest in particular. Many shared stories of their own relationships with their parents, which was always interesting. People seemed to recognise the importance of talking about these things, and they really invested in the parent-child shared-narrative narrative!

CC: What does your dad think about the show? Has he seen it?
BN: He hasn’t seen it yet, but he’s coming to see it later this Festival. Naturally I’m shitting myself. But actually, without giving too much away, I’m not shitting myself as much as I would’ve been, say, two or three years ago. Our relationship has morphed and grown in ways I could never have anticipated, and the show’s meaning, for me as an individual and for an audience, has morphed with it. So I think as long as he doesn’t walk out in the first half an hour, it’ll be fine! It sort of becomes a love letter to him, towards the end. This show is, in some respects, all the things I’ve hitherto not been able to say him.

CC: Did the venture bring you closer together?
BN: Well, I should start by putting in a bit of a ‘spoiler alert’ here! But yes, enormously so. But not really because I went to all the places he lived when he was growing up, but because I quite publicly proclaimed “I DON’T FEEL CLOSE TO MY DAD, I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT HIM” and plastered it all over the internet, assuming, naively, that my dad wouldn’t ever go on my website, or read my blog, or watch my trailer. But, of course, he did. It must be quite difficult to read something like that and not be compelled to make more of an effort, which he has been doing. But a number of other factors have contributed to our relationship improving – his retirement and a change of circumstances all included – but not least of which is me realising that perhaps I’m more like him than I’d at first care to admit. It’s all in the show! So it’s a work in progress and I’ve had a lot of work to do too.

CC:What was the high and the low of the trip?
BN: You won’t get this many spoilers out of me in one interview! But in short, the lows: service stations and Travelodges ad infinitum. And the highs: conversations and contact, sometimes in the most unlikely of places or with the most unlikely of people.

CC: And the best service station?
BN: There is no such thing. Apart from that really nice independent one en route to Edinburgh. Sadly my dad never lived anywhere near there so it didn’t feature.

CC: Tell us a bit more about your background, how did you get into spoken word and performance poetry?
BN: I started performing poetry – or ‘spoken-word’, call it what you want – when I was at university. I’d been acting for about six years by then and writing for around five – mostly plays, page poetry and songs – but I wasn’t aware of this wonderful hybrid. It was enormously liberating. Suddenly I had an outlet for both my acting and writing, and could keep exercising both those muscles on a regular basis and, providing you’re a rigorous self-editor, with a refreshing immediacy: you could write, edit, memorise, rehearse and perform a poem in a day.

CC: You’ve listed this show in the theatre programme. Is that because there’s more of a narrative than with a normal spoken word show?
BN: That’s exactly why. I warm up for this piece like an actor, I perform this piece like an actor and – although I’m playing myself – I’m still ‘playing’ myself, perhaps even a slightly more naive version of myself, particularly at the outset. I didn’t want people to see ‘spoken-word’ and think it’s going to be a lot of shouting or be structured like a poetry reading. This show is the furthest thing from poem-clapping-poem-clapping you could possibly imagine. I have a lot of time for poetry readings, don’t get me wrong, but they seldom engage me in the way theatre engages me, and the way – I hope – that ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Family’ engages people. Also, I play a lot of members of my family and strangers I met on the road, even if it’s just for a line or two. So there’s a lot of funny voices. It had to be in the theatre section!

CC: We’re a week in, what responses has the show been getting from the Edinburgh crowd?
BN: I’ve been incredibly touched by people’s responses. Hearty laughs, a lot of tears – especially from men, which has been amazing to see – and quite a few people saying that they wanted to ring someone they hadn’t called in a while as soon as they left the theatre, which is exactly what we set out to achieve at the start of rehearsals.

CC: And what’s next after the Fringe?
BN: We’re taking Hitchhiker’s on tour around the UK next spring and/or autumn, which I’m incredibly excited about. Before that I’m making a short film for Maverick TV and Rural Media which will hopefully have a much bigger life, for reasons that I’m not allowed to talk about right now! And getting some work as a ‘regular’ actor too, that’d be nice too. Fingers crossed!

‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Family’ was performed at Underbelly Cowgate at Edinburgh Festival 2015.

LINKS: thehitchhikersguidetothefamily.com